WARNING: This article contains personal opinions.
I am fortunate in that I am able to attend several genealogy conferences most years. After listening to presentations and talking with presenters and attendees, I often walk away with one phrase echoing in my mind: “web-based.”
We are in the midst of a computer revolution, both in genealogy and in almost all other uses of personal computers. For the past 25 years or so, home computers have exploded in use. During that time, almost all programs we have used were obtained on disk or possibly by download, then installed and executed directly on each computer, usually without connection to any other computer system. This has worked well although each home computer operated as an “island,” isolated from other computers in the neighborhood and around the world.
In the world of genealogy, we have had a wide variety of programs to choose from. Each of us built our own databases on our own hard drives. Indeed, each database was an island unto itself. Maybe 10,000 people recorded their lines of descent from one common Colonial-period ancestor, but each of those 10,000 duplicated the efforts of the other 9,999 genealogists. Each of us recorded whatever we believed was accurate, often without comparison to other researchers’ efforts. I sometimes think we collectively had 9,999 errors.
We also beat our heads against “stone walls.” Perhaps 9,999 genealogists were frustrated by the same research question: “Who were the parents of this particular person?” What 9,999 of us did not know is that the 10,000th person had solved the puzzle. Yet we rarely had easy access to others’ research efforts.
We also suffered from user errors and hardware failures. More than one genealogist has seen months or years of hard work suddenly evaporate when their hard drive failed or a critical file was deleted or became corrupted.
The emergence of the Internet and especially what is called “Web 2.0” is changing all that. Today’s low-cost connectivity anywhere and everywhere allows for easy online collaboration and sharing among users. The computer world is now immersed in social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies.
NOTE: For a definition of Web 2.0, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0. For a definition of wikis, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki. For a definition of folksonomies, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folksonomy.
It appears to me that the “islands” of genealogy data on individual hard drives are merging into a smaller number of very large online databases, accessible to thousands of genealogists simultaneously. Most of these new databases even include source citations as to where the original information was found. Many of them include PICTURES of the original sources. Today, we can connect our computers to the Internet and research our family trees and even record our efforts. Through this online sharing, the work that each of us produces can benefit other genealogists. Likewise, the work that the others accomplish can easily help each of us. Through this online sharing and group collaboration, the quality of the information can be improved over time to meet the highest standards of genealogy research.
The best part of all, in my mind, is that central databases are typically backed up at least daily, if not more often. Local backups are stored on-site, and duplicate copies usually are stored off-site for even more protection. Crashed hard drives, accidentally deleted files, and other such problems can still be inconvenient, but they are never disastrous in the online world. In most cases, a systems engineer grabs the latest backup copy and restores the lost information. As a result, all data is available to all with only minor interruptions.
To be sure, online collaborative databases aren’t exactly new. Genealogy databases have been online for 15 or 20 years. However, most were isolated; they were “read-only.” We could read the data on FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, HeritageQuest Online, and other online databases. However, we couldn’t easily upload our own data or make corrections to the many errors we found. Most of these online services claimed they accepted corrections, but the process often required months or years, if it ever happened at all. The databases have remained inside isolated computer rooms, and the ability to add new information or to correct erroneous information has been jealously guarded by the database owners.
Almost ten years ago, OneGreatFamily.com introduced a revolutionary service: a single online database containing data contributed by users. Subscribers to OneGreatFamily.com could download a bit of software into their Windows computers and use it in a manner that was somewhat similar to other genealogy programs of the time with one major exception: the data was stored in an online database instead of in individual “islands” on users’ own hard drives. Any new data added to the centralized database was instantly visible and useable by others.
Like many pioneers, OneGreatFamily.com was ahead of its time. While revolutionary, it did not become an overnight success. The service was expensive, limited to Windows computers, and ran rather slowly in the year 2000. Broadband connections were rare ten years ago as most people used 56K dial-up modems. Accessing large databases via dial-up is somewhat similar to draining a lake through a straw; it is theoretically possible to do so, but not very practical.
The explosion of hardware speeds and the widespread use of broadband Internet connections have since solved the speed problems; the typical computers sold today with modern broadband Internet connections can use OneGreatFamily.com quickly. We have seen broadband costs drop dramatically in the past ten years. Some of us even use mobile (wireless) broadband connections while riding the commuter train, all at costs roughly comparable to the fixed, wired broadband of ten years ago. The connection costs for all are still dropping. Even so, OneGreatFamily.com remains as a smaller player in the online genealogy world.
In the past ten years, other online services have appeared that offer online collaboration. Some of these still use individual databases in users’ hard drives and then copy the data to centralized databases that are available to others. Other databases accept data from users, but the data has to be “approved” in some manner by the database owners before new data becomes visible to others. Indeed, it has seemed like database owners were “afraid” of their users; it has been difficult to add data to many of the online genealogy databases. I suspect that many database owners had a fear of erroneous data being added.
New online services have helped quell those fears. Commercial and non-profit services alike have shown that users can be trusted to add data. While errors will always exist, a properly-designed collaborative database allows for a “peer review” of all data and encourages others to quickly correct the mistakes. This results in online databases that contain even fewer errors than the jealously-guarded databases of only a few years ago.
Wikipedia is an excellent non-genealogy example, although there are others. This non-profit encyclopedia has grown through contributions from tens of thousands of enthusiastic users. The end result is a free, online service that has ten or twenty times the information of any commercial competitor, usually with a lower error rate. To be sure, errors are sometimes made when new data is added to Wikipedia. However, as more and more users review and correct the information, the accuracy increases over a period of time. The end result is a very accurate offering.
NOTE: For some eye-opening information about the accuracy of Wikipedia versus Encyclopaedia Britannica, read the article at http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,69844,00.html.
We are now at the threshold of similar offerings in genealogy. Past databases such as the International Genealogy Index, Ancestral File, and World Family Tree are either fading into obscurity or are being modernized to include new data input capabilities not available before. Other products are becoming more and more popular, including FamilySearch Indexing, New FamilySearch, WeRelate.org, PhpGedView, The Next Generation, FamilyTreeexplorer.com (formerly PedigreeSoft), and similar online products. Many of these allow thousands of genealogists to help each other by contributing data to centralized databases.
Some of these products encourage you to share your data with others while other products allow you to keep your information private, accessible only to those you allow.
Some of these services offer huge disk farms with petabytes of available storage space. (A petabyte is 1,000 terabytes, the same as one million gigabytes.) Other products, such as The Next Generation and PedigreeSoft, are aimed at the individual researcher or at groups or societies, especially family name societies.
Online, web-based collaborative databases appear to be the wave of the future.
What about today’s existing genealogy programs that record data on the “islands” of individual hard drives? Well, I wouldn’t be too concerned. Most of these genealogy programs are developed and supported by very intelligent people. They will add whatever capabilities their users ask for.
Personal Ancestral File has already been declared “a dead product” by the producers. In fact, it isn’t dying so much as it is being replaced by the web-based New FamilySearch, an online collaborative service. The producers of New FamilySearch at the Mormon Church are encouraging software producers to write web-based interfaces that will exchange data with this new database. In this case, a new bird is already arising from the ashes of the phoenix. RootsMagic, AncestralQuest, Legacy Family Tree, and Family Insight already have this capability, and I expect the other leading genealogy programs will add it soon.
I am betting that all the major genealogy software producers will offer even better products in the near future. Most will probably allow for dual databases: both local databases on users’ individual hard drives as well as remote collaborative databases. Users will have a choice of using either local or remote databases or (optionally) both at the same time. Data from one database could be copied to the other if the user elects to do so. All of this will remain under each individual user’s direct control.
When used with collaborative databases, any of these programs will allow you to find research already done, to add your own research efforts to the group collaborations, and to either correct or append information to erroneous data already stored in the collaborative database.
It is interesting to note that the New FamilySearch includes an API (application programming interface) that allows programmers to add functionality that lets their users directly access data on the New FamilySearch through other programs. I suspect that other online databases will have to develop similar APIs in order to survive and grow.
I believe that genealogy products of the future will also use the power of your own computer to produce reports, wall charts, pedigree charts, web pages, multimedia scrapbooks, maps, and other capabilities not offered by online databases.
Many of these programs will also allow for creation of “mashups.” In the cooking world, a mashup might start with boiled potatoes that are then fried and finally spiced to create an entirely unique dish. In the online world, it’s the combining of two or more online services in a manner never envisioned by the creators of the online services. For instance, a future genealogy program could extract geographic data from an online genealogy collaborative database and then plot family migrations by using Google Maps. The geographic information could be further supplemented with data extracted from the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names. Dates could be compared to online newspapers to see what political and cultural events may have influenced your ancestors’ decisions to move to new lands. The end result will be much richer than the starting ingredients, dates and places.
These same programs running in individuals’ computers will make it easy to move new data to and from the collaborative databases, including scanned pictures, maps, and more. The centralized databases may hold the raw data, but the various genealogy programs of the future will allow you to get the information out of your computer and into a format that can easily be read and shared with others.
In short, the powerful genealogy programs of today will evolve to become “gateways” to genealogy and other data stored in any of several locations, including local data on your own hard drive. The individual genealogy programs of tomorrow will allow the user to sort, filter, analyze, and report information in ways that we have not yet imagined.
How do you get ready for this future revolution? I have a surprise for you: it is not a future revolution at all. It is happening now; the battles are already being fought around you. I’d suggest that you read this newsletter as well as other online and off-line genealogy publications as time goes by. You will be reading the word “web-based” over and over.
I’d also suggest that you participate in one or more of these new services. If the service you use works well, give your feedback to the service providers. If it works poorly, also give your feedback to that service’s providers. Some of these new services will succeed and grow. Others will wither and die. That’s the normal selection process in genealogy software and services, as in almost everything else in life. Only the strongest survive and grow. You can be a part of the natural selection process.
I believe this is a very exciting time to be a computer-using genealogist!